When the clock strikes four, restaurants all over the city start slashing prices and bringing out drinks and snacks to those looking for some mid-afternoon or late-night comfort. The happy-hours arms race in Denver means that whether you're headed to a dive bar or a chef's flagship restaurant, you'll probably find a list of specials set out before you. But the best happy hours offer more than value, they offer creative food and drink, a relaxing or boisterous atmosphere, a new way of experiencing a restaurant or bar. These five places offer the kind of adventure you can't get anywhere else — and they're keeping the "happy" in "happy hour."
5) Old Major
The seething mass around the bar at this Highland magnet doesn't lie: Old Major is deconstructing the happy hour like a heritage-breed hog, and building it back up into a gourmet event. The reasonably priced small plates on offer have a distinct identity from the much-lauded and -larded main menu, with unique pizza specials ($7) and a five-dollar rotating sausage plate — our pick for Best Happy Hour Dish — as standouts. The fare shifts based on the season and the whims of the kitchen, and combined with a selection of simple, classic cocktails, happy hour at Old Major will appease even the most discerning of foodies.
4) Vesper Lounge
A little bit wild, a little bit funky, Vesper Lounge stakes its claim to happy-hour fame with a board of perfectly acclimated snacks and great late-night drinks, a big part of why it earned our Best Late-Night Happy Hour. Replacing the beloved Lancer Lounge, Vesper hangs on to that classic dive bar's attitude while providing surprisingly solid Middle Eastern fare like falafel sliders ($2.50 each) and baba ghanoush ($3). Named after the failed star vehicles of pop divas, happy-hour drinks like the Swept Away ($7) provide an instant party in the afternoon or late at night with a cosmopolitan and a Lady in Pink sidecar.
3) The Populist
It's a smart move to set down a simple, appealing happy hour in the intersection of nightlife and culture in River North. An afternoon at the Populist begins with choosing from a list of classy cocktails and some of the city's best happy-hour wine, each around $6. Then tickle the tastebuds with a sleeve of salt & vinegar popcorn ($2). The seasonally changing small plates will keep regular customers on their toes, but to sample the bacon & egg plate ($6) or another substantial dish is to experience the Populist with a minimum of risk and a maximum of flavor.
2) Highland Tap & Burger
Approachable and friendly from afternoon to late at night, Highland Tap & Burger clinched the 2015 Reader's Choice awards for Best Late-Night Happy Hour and Best Late-Afternoon Happy Hour, as well as Best Sports Bar for Food and Drink. These accolades are no surprise to regulars of the neighborhood tavern, where happy hour has become a destination. There may be no better place to grab a burger 'round midnight than here, where you can get an award-winning dose of meat candy and a side of fries for $8.50 until 11 p.m., or midnight on Friday and Saturday. That's all piled on top of a bargain-priced selection of classy cocktails, cheap drafts and bar snacks: tacos and sliders in the afternoon, soup and house-made green chile late at night. It'll be a Herculean task for any happy hour to take away Highland Tap & Burger's crown as community favorite.
It's not every day that an afternoon happy hour can challenge your culinary boundaries — but Leña's happy hour does just that, hopping the border past Mexico and well into Central and South America. This young restaurant won our 2015 award for Best Late-Afternoon Happy Hour by breaking from the norm, repositioning Latin American cultural staples like llapingachos ($5) — cheese-packed potato cakes smeared with spicy peanut sauce — as party-starting snacks. Plus, the tacos here ($3 each) are stuffed with surprisingly deep and complex-flavored ingredients, like chile-rubbed local goat, making them a great choice to pair with $2.50 drafts and $5 cups of sangria. Humble though it may be, it would be a shame to sleep on Denver's most innovative and exciting happy hour.